Poison has always been part of the human story, from the earliest hominids and their accidental exposure to bad berries. In England and the United States, the availability of household poisons was incredibly high. Cyanide and strychnine were sold over the counter as rat poisons. Also, several then unknown poisons like arsenic were manufactured into the wallpapers and carpets of middle and upper class parlors. The Edwardian children of Victorian parents removed the arsenic and replaced it with asbestos. There are undoubtedly things we consider safe in our homes today that future generations will know are hazardous.
Accidentally poisoning food with the harsh chemicals was a bigger risk back then, because product labeling had very few standards. Flour, sugar, and strychnine were all sold in similar bottles. Mistaking the poison for the food in one’s own pantry right next to it was not unheard of. Eventually, after several deaths, various laws passed in both countries requiring that packages be distinct when containing poisons. The English law specified that a bottle of poison be distinguishable by touch.
Because of this wide availability of poisons, and the not uncommon instances of accidental poisoning, the idea of the lady poisoner took off. Penny dreadfuls and other popular fiction featured plot lines about merry widows. Newspapers followed famous poisoning trials, and published op-eds expressing fear that every housewife might murder her husband. “Why wouldn’t they?” was the main question. Divorce was not exactly easy to obtain even where legal. Poison on the other hand was.
There were plenty cases of real, intentional, homicidal poisoning mixed in amongst the anxieties and novellas. While men and women availed themselves of this means of destruction, it was women who caught hold of the public’s imagination. Murder had always been in a man’s arsenal, from swords and guns to brute physical strength. Women of all classes wore corsets in this era, and lived lives of shallow breathing. It would have been near impossible for a woman to violently attack a man with the free use of his lungs, while hyperventilating herself. Poison leveled the field of murder so that even a woman in a tight laced corset could participate.
Cyanide and strychnine were popular, despite the strong evidence of poisoning they left behind. Both worked quickly, killing a person in just a few minutes. Arsenic however took time to work and its symptoms mirrored those of other conditions. Arsenic was sold as a disinfectant, a rat poison, and a beauty cream. Arsenic poisoning looked like consumption in the early stages. While the lady poisoner is our image of the product today, women were more likely to suffer the effects of poisons they applied to their skin each day.
Toxicology and pathology sciences have much improved since then, and evidence of poisoning is easier than ever to detect. Cyanide, strychnine and arsenic are now controlled, and sacks of flour are clearly not packages of rat poison. The lady poisoner is now an occasional guest character on murder mystery and police procedural television shows, not one of our most common villains. The so-called Golden Age of Poisons was short lived. But it is a fascinating peek at history and human fears.